Colorado still looking for new heights

After RSL's title run, can the Rapids make an unexpected surge?

The Tweet and Lowdown:

The Rapids added veterans
to bolster their already potent attack, but will it work? They’re still
looking up at the best in the West.

Setting the Scene:

Fate
dealt the Rapids an especially tough hand last season, when Rocky
Mountain rival Real Salt Lake won the winner-take-all season finale for
the final playoff spot. Then Colorado watched RSL surge all the way to
its first MLS Cup in franchise history, leaving the Rapids to wonder how
their neighbors won a league title before the trophy ever made an
appearance in the Mile High City.

So now it’s up to the Rapids’
powerful attacking duo of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings, who last season
combined for 24 goals and proved to be perhaps the best attack in the
league. Casey was especially impressive, scoring 16 goals and making his
mark on the U.S. national team scene, but Cummings could be ready to
pop as well if defenses load up on Casey. The Rapids added Revolution
mainstays Jeff Larentowicz and Wells Thompson in a January trade, giving
Colorado some depth and postseason-savvy beyond the front line that
should help down the stretch. Pablo Mastroeni is back for his ninth
season with the club, and Matt Pickens is the man in net for Gary Smith,
who enters his second full season on the job.

Key Changes:

Players
In:
Jeff Larentowicz (New England), Wells Thompson ( New England),
Andre Akpan (Harvard), Oscar Murillo (Deportes Quindio)

Players
Out:
Preston Burpo (New England), Cory Gibbs (New England), Pat
Noonan (waived)

Star Attraction: Conor Casey

Few
players did more to bully his way onto the MLS and international scene
than Casey did in 2009. Perhaps the league’s biggest and most imposing
forward, Casey proved that an ACL tear in 2008 was old news by setting a
new franchise single-season record with 16 goals and giving the MVP
voters something to think about in the Mountain Time Zone. Four of his
eight national team appearances came during the team’s run to the
championship of the Confederations Cup in South Africa, and he’s in the
mix for a reserve role for the World Cup. But can he continue his rocket
ride to success in 2010?

Unsung Hero: Nick LaBrocca

No
player has been steadier or more versatile during the past two seasons
than Nick LaBrocca, a steal from the 2007 SuperDraft that most teams
would reconsider in a heartbeat. The former reserve player has come into
his own in Colorado of late, logging more minutes than any other Rapids
player in the last two seasons and earning time at five different
positions last season alone. A solid midfielder with a defensive mind,
he’s got what coaches quietly covet from all of their players:
durability. LaBrocca’s missed just one game during the past two seasons.

Ready
for Primetime: Omar Cummings

Folks in Denver know
Cummings well, but it’s tough to tell if fans league-wide can tell how
good this Jamaican forward is poised to be. Thanks to his potent top
line partnership with Casey, Cummings set personal bests with 12 assists
and eight goals in 2009, a steady improvement from a great start in
2008. Teams will likely struggle again this year with Cummings’ speed,
and if defenses focus on the more-established Casey, Cummings could
thrive and put up some serious numbers. Expect even bigger things this
time around.

Storylines to Watch:

The trade
that landed Larentowicz and Wells was a blockbuster for Colorado, giving
the club two proven midfielders and swagger it has been missing over
the years. Just how these two fit into the fold – and how quickly the
results start showing – could determine the club’s early-season success.
If Casey does make the U.S. roster, he could miss as many three weeks
leading up to the World Cup opener, and then more time if the Americans
advance past the group stage. That puts the onus not just on Cummings
but on the club’s defense as well, since it will lack the offensive
punch it had with Casey grabbing goals by the handful last season. The
club’s Rocky Mountain Cup matches against Real Salt Lake come late in
the season this year, on the road on Sept. 25 and back at home in
Commerce City in – surprise, surprise - the season finale.

What
He Said:

“We didn't do enough to get in the playoffs,
much less the final. I thought both teams showed some heart and a lot of
character to get to the finals. And I guess it showed us we are capable
of beating those teams and with some heart, hard work and a little bit
of luck we can make it this season. “

-Omar Cummings

If
Everything Goes Right:

There’s no doubt that Colorado might
lack some of the talent of its Western Conference counterparts, but the
same was said last season of Real Salt Lake before its magical run. If
Colorado can capitalize on its unique offensive firepower and not fold
under pressure - it finished winless in the final nine games last year –
then anything is possible. Don’t expect the Rapids to surge out and
lead the West from the get-go, but challenging for a playoff spot should
be a given.